Tunisians' welcoming of Libyan refugees is altruism in action

This piece has just gone up at The Guardian’s Comment is free

Many tens of thousands of refugees have now fled Libya and crossed to the relative safety of Tunisia. Their stories will, no doubt, be ones of terror and horror. And yet, there are tales of deep humanity too in their flight. A UNHCR spokesperson, Andrej Mahecic, has reported that fewer than one in ten of the Libyan arrivals are staying in refugee camps. Instead, the vast majority of those fleeing have been welcomed by Tunisian communities. The homeless Libyans are being hosted by locals, at the locals’ expense and with great generosity, given the Tunisians’ own resources are not great.

It’s a moving tale, especially given the worries rattling around rich Europe about the migration implications of the Arab uprisings, given our own habits of locking up immigrants behind bars. Of course, the situation in Libya is an emergency. And there are deep bonds between these peoples, founded upon a common religion. But the story prompts thoughts about the nature of altruism and what happens when caring for others comes to be seen as primarily a technical, rather than a human, problem.

There is a lot of discussion about altruism today, driven in large part by the trouble it causes evolutionary theory. In the dog-eat-dog world of crude Darwinism, why should it be that some species collaborate, even to the point of self-sacrifice? In fact, Martin Nowak, author of SuperCooperators, argues that co-operation is quite as central to evolution as competition. You only need do the maths, he explains, the cost-benefit analysis. Working together in groups works. Only, that’s not the whole story, he continues.

The problem with a cost-benefit analysis approach is that it reduces altruism. Instead of being about selflessness, it becomes a new form of selfishness. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But I’ll remember what I did for you, and hold you forever in my debt.

Transfer that into the moral discourse that shapes a culture, and you find yourself with a world in which virtues such as trust, courage, loyalty and sympathy struggle to thrive. Instead of honour, we write contracts. Instead of bonds of friendship, we work out our relationship to one another in the courts.

Nowak recognises that the maths can provide only half the story, and it misses out the most important part too, namely the role played by intention. What are the values that underpin co-operation? What are the beliefs that allow it to flourish? This is the vital discussion, he asserts, and one that must include politicians and philosophers, artists and theologians, alongside the scientists.

Then, there is this leaving things to technical experts or professionals, highlighted by what’s happening in Tunisia. The Libyans aren’t going to the camps set up by UN administrators. The people of Tunisia are presumably so moved as to open up their own homes. This is not to downplay the role of the UNHCR. The spokesperson also stressed that the Tunisians will need support to sustain the hospitality on offer. But it is to point to a paradox that arises in a world that expects agencies and officials to be on the frontline of caring for others. It was a conundrum that fascinated the philosopher Ivan Illich.

He reflected on the story of the Good Samaritan, and asked himself what it was that the Samaritan got so right. He was free, Illich concluded, free to respond to a human being, although half-dead. He was not worried about his own safety, as we might be when we decide to call the police to help house someone sleeping on the streets. He was not constrained by fears of dirt or pollution. Rather, he was free enough to respond from his guts, as the biblical story puts it. It was not an onerous sense of responsibility or duty that led him to stop, but simply one of relationship, of friendship.

Technocratic solutions to human problems are necessary and do great good. But the risk is that they clog our compassion. Altruism is reduced again, to the writing of a cheque, to the spectator sport called 24-hour TV. But the story of the Libyans, being helped by their neighbours, is a reminder that it’s our humanity and its virtues that nourishes the good in life.